For a long time I have been committed to the wrestle of what it means to live faith with integrity. This website is an expression of that wrestle for me.
I have spent a fair bit of energy thinking about, writing about, and talking about this wrestle. I have authored two books, gained a Masters Degree in Theology and travelled the world sharing this wrestle.
In a new way I have seen that thinking, writing and talking are actually a very small part of the work that is required of me if I want to continue on this path.
If I am to be serious about all of this, it is actually the things that I am not thinking about that are more important than the things I am.
For over 20 years I have taught a course called Foundations, which I believe is one of the most helpful frameworks for living a whole Christian life that there is. It is a very integrated course, touching on most areas of life.
One of the units that I have always known was very important, but somehow, for a number of reasons, I have not really engaged deeply with, is the unit on Habits.
That changed for me this week.
As I prepared to teach the unit, I engaged with two books that re-framed the topic for me in a new light and gave me tools to understand both the topic and myself in a new way. The Two books were Virtue Reborn (or After you Believe if you are in North America) by N.T. Wright and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
N.T Wright made it clear that Character is one of the fundamental questions of the Christian journey. He defines character as:
The pattern of thinking and acting which runs right through someone, so that wherever you cut into them (as it were), you see the same person through and through. Its opposite would be superficiality: we all know people who present themselves at first glance as honest, cheerful, patient, or whatever, but when you get to know them better you come to realize that they’re only “putting it on,” and that when faced with a crisis, or simply when their guard is down, they’re as dishonest, grouchy, and impatient as the next person.
I don’t like that definition. I know there are plenty of times when I am putting it on. I can see so many areas in my own life where I need to grow. It is so much easier to preach a great sermon or to write a great reflection than to be a consistently great person.
As I have written about before, I know that there it part of me that wants a silver bullet, a magic answer, a quick emotional high, that changes everything. I’m part of Generation X. We don’t like waiting for anything.
I am seeing more and more clearly how unhelpful that part of me is in the journey towards living faith with integrity.
What became clear in a new way this week, is that it is actually the small, boring, consistent choices, not the big, splashy, emotion-charged actions, that change the world.
William James says:
“Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its ever-so-small scar. As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so too we become more godly by so many separate acts in the moral realm.”
Or as N.T. Wright re-states it:
“Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally”—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically,” as we say”
Or as the Apostle Paul puts it in Galatians 6:7-9:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
One of the things that was new for me this week was a fresh understanding of how habits form the basis of character, and how that is actually very good news.
Often I have taught the unit on Habits with a dull sense of powerlessness, as I knew I was naming an important truth, but also naming part of me that I didn’t have the willpower to change. I kept feeling like I needed to try harder, but that feeling didn’t help me much.
A discovery about what habits actually are has really helped me. Most often I have thought of the habit being the action that I want to do (e.g. exercise, prayer, encouraging people, listening), or stop doing (e.g. eating junk food, saying inappropriate things or avoiding conflict). As it turns out, the action itself is only one of three parts of any habit.
Over the last 10 years, researchers at M.I.T. have done significant research into habits which has been made accessible to those of us who are not neurologists by author Charles Duhigg in his book. He describes the 3 parts of a habit as the cue, the routine and the reward:
What was helpful from Duhigg’s book was the insight that in making and breaking habits, you are actually only wanting to change the routine, but in order to do this, you need to understand what the cue and the reward are.
The world will continue to be full of triggers (or cues) and the rewards are usually normal human cravings or needs that you can’t pretend don’t exist. The secret to harnessing the power of habit is to find new routines to achieve the rewards.
Duhigg names the four steps to making or breaking habits as:
- Identify the routine: Name the behaviour you want to change.
- Experiment with Rewards: Test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine.
- Isolate the Cue: Is it Location, Time, Emotional State, Other people or the Immediately Preceding Action?
- Have a Plan: Intend to implement a new Routine and have systems to remind yourself of that intention.
These four steps are particularly helpful, and help me understand why sometimes I have been successful in establishing new habits, and sometimes I haven’t. It was also helpful to know that the cues that trigger habits are actually limited to one of the 5 things mentioned in the third step.
I can also see that this work, of establishing healthy habits, is some of the most important work I will ever do. As the indian proverb says, our character, which the bible seems to talk so much about, is formed through the collection of our habits:
Sow a thought, reap an action;
Sow an action, reap a habit;
Sow a habit, reap a character;
Sow a character, reap a destiny
One of the insights that emerged as I taught the unit was that until I am ready to evaluate the actions I take every day without thinking (about 40% according to one Duke University study), then my faith journey will be significantly limited to the world of my ideas and not the reality of my actions.
There is not a single silver bullet that changes everything, but as I face the implications of my habits, I find I can actually make changes. Just because I always have, doesn’t mean I always will. I can change.